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on 6 December 2014
'The Formula' makes us aware of the reality of how algorithms are increasingly driving our lives. We see them in the form of filtered posts on Facebook, customised results displayed by search engines, speeding tickets, who gets frisked or questioned at airports etc. It showcases their effect on health - as part of the quantified self movement, on choosing our life partners, law enforcement and creativity (making art!) - as an example.

We are often led to believe that how a machine or an automated system behaves based on some rules is more objective than how a human might act in the same situation. The author drives home the point that these formulae are neither good nor bad or even neutral - in the true sense - but reflect the peculiarities and beliefs of the humans who have created them.

Relying on them without understanding some basic truths can have unintended consequences - some we can forecast, others we cannot. Sometimes we don’t even realise that we are just data points in a huge data set.

Does it mean that we have to stop depending on them? At the pace at which we are evolving as a civilisation, it is not a choice we have. We cannot be the luddites of the 21st century.

We need to be aware that the logic behind machines is written by humans and therefore, they can be just as fallible as humans can be. The formulae can discriminate against people who look unlike us or who have different religious or political beliefs than us. This understanding helps us question the objectivity of automated systems when companies or governments over-sell them. It aids in living our lives less precariously and lets us act with a little more empathy towards the outliers - people who are adversely affected by these with no fault of their own.

This book is really worth your time if you want to be cognizant of how automated systems taking over critical decisions affects you - now and in the future.
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on 20 December 2014
The Formula provides an overarching account of how algorithms are increasingly being used to mediate, augment and regulate everyday life. There’s much to like about the book -- it’s an engaging read, full of interesting examples, there’s an attempt to go beyond the hyperbole of many popular books about technology and society, and it draws on the ideas of a range of critical theorists (including Baudrillard, Deleuze, Marx, Virilio, Foucault, Descartes, Sennett, Turkle, etc). It’s clear that the discussion is based on a number of interviews with algorithm developers and academics. However, there are also some notable gaps in the analysis and the analysis itself generally lacks depth. There is no detailed discussion about the nature of algorithms or its formulation into pseudo-code or code, or even a brief potted history of the development of algorithms. There is a very short discussion concerning the negative side of algorithms and how they are used to socially sort, underpin anticipatory governance, regulate and control, which really needed to be expanded. The analysis points to various issues and suggests some interesting lines of enquiry but then skims over them, with one or two points from the varied selection of theorists being used to illustrate an idea but often in quite a superficial way. Given the book is designed to be a popular science text aimed at a lay readership getting the balance between accessibility, depth and critical reflection is tricky. Dormehl does a better job of balancing the two than some others I’ve read recently, but I would have still have preferred deeper analysis, especially on the nature of algorithms and the effects and consequences of algorithmic governance and automation.
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on 10 March 2015
Hands down, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a long time! Worth a read for anyone with even a slight interest in technology, and how automation is both a gift and a curse.
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on 16 October 2014
Truly eye opening book which removes lots of life's pre conceived coincidences. Truly exciting prospects for the future, both positive and negative.
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on 15 November 2014
Dad loved it so much he's reading it again.
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on 19 June 2014
I believe that the author appeared on BBC Radio 2. The book makes an interesting read. I quite like it.
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